Introduction to Just Sustainability Design
Just Sustainability Design is a framework for systems design practice, research, and pedagogy that privileges sustainability and justice and therefore, the asymmetric and uneven effects of systems design choices at a distance. JSD aims to bring about improvement, not just avoid damage. It is sensitive to the discursive nature of systems design and the dangers presented by misleading narratives that keep systems design practice captive to false consciousness. Because it centres the concerns of sustainability and justice, JSD must attend to five important factors they raise: dispersal, uncertainty and ambiguity, fragmentation, power dynamics, and incommensurability.
- Dispersal of design effects and their ripple effects across space and time
- Uncertainty and ambiguity about complex dynamic effects across time scales
- Fragmentation of perspective and agency across the many stakeholders involved in or affected by design decisions
- Power dynamics across direct and indirect stakeholders with unevenly distributed influence over decisions in systems design
- Incommensurability across different views of the design pace it aims to address and offer a pluralist perspective
JSD is developed throughout the book Insolvent, which is the best source to get started.
Principles of JSD
Constructive and Critical
Critique is an essential element of change. To reorient systems design toward sustainability and justice, critique must also examine the norms themselves that govern how computational systems are designed today. In doing so, JSD must be critical without abandoning the generative aspects of engineering and design. The idea of critical friendship is central to achieving this.
Because the social, the technical, and the natural are entangled with political, cultural, and economic dimensions, JSD must take a systemic perspective—a perspective that prioritizes the consideration of wholes and their relationships over the isolated analysis of individual components and their properties. The boundaries of meaningful “wholes” rarely align with organizational and technical boundaries, so the commitment to systemic thought implies the acknowledgement that technology design always designs sociotechnical rather than purely technical systems.
The climate crisis has brought to the forefront central challenges for epistemology and collective action that sustainability and justice advocates have long grappled with, including the incommensurability of conflicting worldviews, the inevitable selectivity of each, and the need to nevertheless find common grounds for collective action. Just sustainability design—and in fact any systems design for the twenty-first century that tackles relevant social issues—must transcend the nomological forms of reasoning expressed by traditional science-driven approaches to “solving social problems” through deductive means alone, in favour of a pluralist dialectics of design in which multiple worldviews can meaningfully engage.
The delayed temporal nature, and the path-dependent nature of design decisions and ecosystems, requires a diachronic design perspective—that is, a perspective aware of temporal scales and dynamics—studying its phenomenon as it evolves over time. JSD must account for the historical profile of the processes that led to the system design, the life cycle of the system itself, the downstream and long-term impacts and consequences, and the temporal dynamics of design itself, rather than taking an atemporal focus on the “now” of design.
Just sustainability design must be aware of its contingency and the partiality of its perspective and equipped to reflect on its already given context, boundaries, and assumptions. Contingency also means that rather than being declared complete and optimal, JSD must be thought of as a proudly incomplete project, fashioned to learn and evolve.
The orientation toward sustainability and justice highlights the asymmetry of distant effects of design choices. Because full participation of those affected in design is not possible, JSD must grapple seriously with the question of justification. Rather than seeking a technical optimization or abandoning the generative orientation of design and engineering, the approach must aim to prioritize questions of legitimacy when systems design choices are to be justified based on their potential effects on those not involved in design.
Reasonable, rather than rationalists
In justifying critically and systemically the choices made in systems design with regards to their uncertain and distant effects, JSD cannot rely solely on rationalist modes of deduction. They would lead us right back into the traps of universalist frameworks of an ideological nature. Instead, it must be built on reasonable arguments. This is important, and it applies both to the level of argumentation needed to develop and justify methodological commitments and principles and to the discursive level of reasoning through systems design choices. This does not preclude the application of scientific and rationalist frameworks for those issues and contexts to which they are appropriate in situations in which that is legitimate.
Replicable, rather than repeatable
JSD will not produce one absolute method for design that can supposedly be repeated to yield optimal outcomes. Instead, it asks for replicability across different contexts, building and growing our understanding of how it can work in heterogeneous ways across diverse contexts.